American Jihadi Reportedly Killed in an Al-Shabab Ambush in Southern Somalia

Al-Shabaab (Al-Shabab) Harakat al-Shabab (Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami)

Omar Hammami (right) with Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, a dissident Al-Shabab leader and member of the Rahanweyn clan group with which Hammami affiliated himself with on his year and a half in hiding from Al-Shabab.

American jihadi Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami has reportedly been killed in an ambush in southern Somalia carried out by Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Mujahideen-Youth).  Hiding in the forests of the Bay and Bakool region of Somalia, Hammami fell out publicly with Al-Shabab in March 2012 over issues of “strategy and shari’a [Islamic law.]”  Hammami’s killing comes in the midst of growing internal strife within Al-Shabab related to the leadership (and criticism of it) of the movement’s amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane.  In late June, reports surfaced that Godane had ordered the assassinations of two senior leaders of Al-Shabab who were also critical of his leadership, Ibrahim al-Afghani and preacher Mu’allim Burhan.

In his last interview, with Voice of America’s Somali language service, Hammami alleged that Godane had abandoned the “principles of our religion [Islam],” which represents a form of takfir or declaration of an individual who claims to be Muslim as a non-Muslim.  In his strategic writings and audio recordings, produced both under his nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” and his pen name “Abu Jihad al-Shami,” Hammami argued for a strategy wedded to “pure” Islam (as defined by him), marking a puritanical streak which, as can be seen in his dispute with Al-Shabab, transcended loyalty to any particular militant group.

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) is currently eulogizing Hammami and a British militant who was also killed with a banner at the top of its main page.  The banner (below) declares that “the shaykh” Hammami was martyred, using the term istishhad, which can carry a meaning of seeking out martyrdom.  The banner includes a quotation from part of verse 156 of Sura al-Baqara in the Qur’an:

Inna li-lahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Verily we are from God and to Him we return).

The phrase is used by Muslims for those who have died.

Hammami killed (Global Jihad Forum eulogy, 2013 September 12)


A Violent Non-State Actors Reading List

In the introduction to her edited volume Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, Klejda Mulaj notes that, while political science scholarship has extensively examined non-state actors (most notably those whose activities are primarily economic), violent non-state actors (VNSAs) “have only recently received sustained interest amongst academic and policy circles.” The study of VNSAs is thus a young and developing academic field, and scholars examining VNSAs will experience both the joys and also the pitfalls of working on a relatively new topic. The theoretical literature is highly uneven, with some extraordinarily well developed concepts mixed with a battery of assumptions that the field may no longer adhere to in four or five years.

This semester I’m teaching a course on violent non-state actors for Georgetown University’s security studies program, the first such class that the program has offered (although it has offered courses examining terrorism and counterterrorism for many years). A number of colleagues have expressed interest in seeing my syllabus, or having me provide a reading list. Thus, to assist other scholars with an interest in VNSAs, I’ve compiled the following reading list, largely based on my course syllabus. The inclusion of a particular work does not constitute an endorsement (which should be evident to those who remember my reaction to Pape and Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse), but it means that it’s part of the relevant discussion that scholars should be having. [Note: This list was updated on July 9, 2014, following the completion of a new course syllabus.]

Part One: Theoretical Foundations

I. Violent Non-State Actors in Context

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorism and the Coming Decade,” Global Brief, Oct. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Interpreting al-Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, January 6, 2014.

Derek Jones, Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks (Joint Special Operations University, 2012).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 1.

Jacob Shapiro & Nils B. Weidmann, “Is the Phone Mightier than the Sword?: Cell Phones and Insurgent Violence in Iraq,” Dec. 18, 2011.

Lisa Stampnitzky, “Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production,” Qualitative Sociology 34 (2011):1–19.

II. Defining Violent Non-State Actors and Understanding Their Strategy

Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars,” International Security 26:1 (2001).

Jack A. Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science (2001): 139-187.

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006).

Carlo Morselli, “Assessing Vulnerable and Strategic Positions in a Criminal Network,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26 (2010).

Nicholas Sambanis, “What is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48:6 (2004): 814‐58.

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), pp. 3-34.

III. Recruiting

Ana M. Arjona &  Stathis N. Kalyvas, Rebelling Against Rebellion: Comparing Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Recruitment (2008).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “A Blind Spot,” Pragati, Nov. 2, 2012.

John Knefel, “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong,” Rolling Stone, May 6, 2013.

Clark McCauley & Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Peter R. Neumann, “The Trouble with Radicalization,” International Affairs 89:4 (2013): 873-93.

Robert Pape & James K. Feldman, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop It (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Patrick Van Inwegen, Understanding Revolution (2011), chapters 1, 4-7.


IV. Nationalist Groups

Brian Michael Jenkins, International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 1974).

Daniel Byman, “The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21:2 (1998).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 3-5.

C.J.M. Drake, “The Provisional IRA: A Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 3:2 (1991).

Martyn Frampton, “Dissident Irish Republican Violence: A Resurgent Threat?” The Political Quarterly 83:2 (Apr.–June 2012).

Judith Matloff, “Basque-ing in Peace,” World Policy Journal 29:3 (2012): 81–88.

Ignacio Sànchez-Cuenca, “The Dynamics of Nationalist Terrorism: ETA and the IRA,” Terrorism and Political Violence 19:3 (2007).

James A. Piazza, “Is Islamist Terrorism More Dangerous?: An Empirical Study of Group Ideology, Organization, and Goal Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:1 (2009): 62-88.

V. Insurgent Groups

Mark T. Berger & Douglas A. Borer, “The Long War: Insurgency, Counterinsurgency and Collapsing States,” Third World Quarterly 28:2 (2007).

David Fitzgerald, “Vietnam, Iraq and the Rebirth of Counter-Insurgency,” Irish Studies in International Affairs (2009).

Richard Weitz, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Latin America, 1960-1980,” Political Science Quarterly 101:3 (1986).

Thomas H. Henriksen, Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Indirect Approach (Joint Special Operations University, 2010).

Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, August 2009.

Jason Fritz, “Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem,” War on the Rocks, August 14, 2013.

VI. Al-Qaeda through 2011

Brian Michael Jenkins, “The New Age of Terrorism” (RAND, 2006).

Juan Carlos Antúnez & Ioannis Tellidis, “The Power of Words: The Deficient Terminology Surrounding Islam-Related Terrorism,” Critical Studies in Terrorism (2013).

Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann & Raffaello Pantucci, “Locating al-Qaeda’s Center of Gravity: The Role of Middle Managers,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:9 (2011).

Leah Farrall, “How al-Qaeda Works,” Foreign Affairs 90:2, Mar./Apr. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Lone Wolf Islamic Terrorism: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe) Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:1 (2014).

Brian A. Jackson & Bryce Loidolt, “Considering al-Qa’ida’s Innovation Doctrine: From Strategic Texts to ‘Innovation in Practice,’” Terrorism and Political Violence 25:2 (2013): 284-310.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 10.

K. Payne, “Building the Base: Al-Qaeda’s Focoist Strategy,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:2 (2011).

VII. The Arab Uprisings and Al-Qaeda

Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).

Scott Shane, “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al-Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” New York Times, February 27, 2011.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, pp. 184-88.

Daniel Byman, “Terrorism After the Revolutions: How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists,” Foreign Affairs 90:3 (2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Long Game: Dawa, Hisba, and Jihad (ICCT—The Hague, 2013).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Tara Vassefi, “Perceptions of the Arab Spring Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35 (2012).

Fawaz Gerges, “The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda: Debunking the Terrorism Narrative,” Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2012.

Bruce Hoffman, “Al Qaeda’s Uncertain Future,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36:8 (2013): 635-53.

William McCants, “Al-Qaeda’s Challenge: The Jihadists’ War with Islamist Democrats,” Foreign Affairs, Sept./Oct. 2011.

VIII. Hamas and Hizballah

Eitan Azani, “Hezbollah’s Strategy of ‘Walking on the Edge’: Between Political Game and Political Violence,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 35:11 (2012): 741-59.

Nadia Baranovich & Ravichandran Moorthy, “Terror Strategies in the Israel-Palestine Conflict: An Analysis of Hezbollah and Hamas,” IEPDR 5:2 (2011): 229-36.

Hillel Frisch, “Strategic Change in Terrorist Movements: Lessons from Hamas,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:12 (2009): 1049-1065.

Mona Harb & Reinoud Leenders, “Know Thy Enemy: Hizbullah, ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Perception,” Third World Quarterly 26:1 (2005).

Baudouin Long, “The Hamas Agenda: How Has it Changed?” Middle East Policy 17:4 (2010): 131-43.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 7-8.

IX. The Defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 17.

Ahmed Hashim, When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers (2013).

Neil DeVotta, “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka,” Asian Survey, December 2009.

Lionel Beehner, “What Sri Lanka Can Teach Us About COIN,” Small Wars Journal, August 27, 2010.

Niel A. Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers,” Joint Force Quarterly 59 (2010).

John Thompson, “Hosting Terrorism: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Canada,” in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Linda Frum eds., Terror in the Peaceable Kingdom (2012).

X. Drug and Criminal Cartels

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 2.

Robert J. Bunker & John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution Revisited: Third Phase Cartel Potentials and Alternative Futures in Mexico,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 30-54.

Ami C. Carpenter, “Beyond Drug Wars: Transforming Factional Conflict in Mexico,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 27:4 (2010).

Sylvia M. Longmire & John P. Longmire. “Redefining Terrorism: Why Mexican Drug Trafficking is More Than Just Organized Crime,” Journal of Strategic Security 1:1 (2008): 35-52.

Carlo Morselli, Cynthia Giguère & Katia Petit, “The Efficiency/Security Trade-Off in Criminal Networks,” Social Networks 29 (2007): 143–53.

John T. Picarelli, “Osama bin Corleone? Vito the Jackal? Framing Threat Convergence Through an Examination of Transnational Organized Crime and International Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 24:2 (2012): 180-98.

Bilal Y. Saab & Alexandra W. Taylor, “Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:6 (2009): 455-75.

Graham H. Turbiville Jr, “Firefights, Raids, and Assassinations: Tactical Forms of Cartel Violence and Their Underpinnings,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 123-144.

Jeremy McDermott, The FARC, the Peace Process and the Potential Criminalisation of the Guerrillas (2013).

XI. Non-State Actors in the Cyber Realm.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Anatomy of an Evolving Threat: Publication of Classified Information,” War on the Rocks, November 20, 2013.

Wendy Wong & Peter Brown, “E-Bandits in Global Activism: Wikileaks, Anonymous, and the Politics of No One,” Perspectives on Politics 11:4 (2013).

Noah Hampson, “Hacktivism: A New Breed Of Protests in a Networked World,” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 35:2 (2012): 511-542.

Jeffery T. Richelson, “Intelligence Secrets and Unauthorized Disclosures: Confronting Some Fundamental Issues,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 25:4 (2012).

François Heisbourg, “Leaks and Lessons,” Survival 53:1 (2011).

Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness, “The Dynamics of Cyber Conflict between Rival Antagonists, 2001-11,” Journal of Peace Research 51:3 (2014).

Simon Mabon, “Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, Communication, and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt,” Third World Quarterly (2013).

Alinta Krauth, “Anonymous in Portmanteaupia,” Social Alternatives 31:2 (2012): 27-32.

Charlotte Philby, “The Tor System: Welcome to the Dark Internet Where You Can Search in Secret,” Independent, June 10, 2013.

Peter W. Singer, “The Cyber Terror Bogeyman,” Brookings Institute, Nov. 2012.

Simon Springer et al., “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of WikiLeaks,” Geopolitics 17 (2012): 681-711.

XII. Warlords, Lineage-Based VNSAs, and Traditional Power Brokers

Anthony Vinci, “‘Like Worms in the Entrails of a Natural Man’: A Conceptual Analysis of Warlords,” Review of African Political Economy 34:112 (2007).

Jutta Bakonyi & Kirsti Stuvøy. “Violence and Social Order Beyond the State: Somalia and Angola,” Review of African Political Economy 32:104-105 (2005): 359-82.

Kimberly Marten, “Warlordism in Comparative Perspective,” International Security 31:3 (Winter 2006/07): 41-73.

XIII. Private Military Corporations

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 18.

David Perry, “Blackwater vs. bin Laden: The Private Sector’s Role in American Counterterrorism,” Comparative Strategy 31:1 (2012).

Deane-Peter Baker & James Pattison, “The Principled Case for Employing Private Military and Security Companies in Interventions for Human Rights Purposes,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 29:1 (2012).

Christopher Kinsey, “Problematising the Role of Private Security Companies in Small Wars,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 18:4 (2007): 584–614.

Seden Akcinaroglu & Elizabeth Radziszewski, “Private Military Companies, Opportunities, and Termination of Civil Wars in Africa,” Journal on Conflict Resolution (2012).

Ulrich Petersohn, “The Other Side of the COIN: Private Security Companies and Counterinsurgency Operations,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34:10 (2011): 782–801.

XIV. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 9, 11, 16.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapters 7-8.

Vanessa M. Gezari, “How to Read Afghanistan,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 2013.

Thomas Johnson, “Taliban Adaptations and Innovations,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 24:1 (2013): 3–27.

Thomas H. Johnson & Matthew C. DuPee, “Analysing the New Taliban Code of Conduct (Layeha): An Assessment of Changing Perspectives and Strategies of the Afghan Taliban,” Central Asian Survey (2012).

Antonio Giustozzi, “Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun: the Taliban’s Shadow Government,” Prism (2012).

Oscar Gakuo Mwangi, “State Collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and Legitimacy in Somalia,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 13:4 (2013): 513–27.

XV. Counter-Opposition VNSAs

Sabine C. Carey, Michael Colaresi & Neil J. Mitchell, “Disorder, Delegation, and Deniability: Incentives for Pro-Government Militias,” conference paper from Paramilitaries, Militias, and Civil Defense Forces in Civil Wars (2012).

Mark Wilbanks & Efraim Karsh, “How the ‘Sons of Iraq’ Stabilized Iraq,” Middle East Quarterly 17:4 (Fall 2010).

Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal ‘Sahwa’: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 18:1 (2011).

Enzo Nussio, “Learning from Shortcomings: The Demobilization of Paramilitaries in Colombia,” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 6:2 (2011).


XVI. The State’s Tactical and Strategic Toolkit

Audrey Kurth Cronin & James M. Ludes eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Georgetown University Press, 2004).

Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Thomas & Casebeer, “Violent Non-State Actors: Countering Dynamic Systems,” Strategic Insights, March 2004.

Bryan Groves, “America’s Trajectory in the Long War: Redirecting Our Efforts Toward Strategic Effects Versus Simply Tactical Gains,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36:1 (2013): 26–48.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Future of Preventive Detention Under International Law,” in Sam Muller ed., The Law of the Future and the Future of Law (Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law, 2012).

Benjamin Wittes, Detention and Denial: The Case for Candor After Guantanamo (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), chapters 1, 2, 5.

Stephanie Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” Security Studies 21:3 (2012).

Jenna Jordan, “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes,” International Security 38:4 (2014).

Patrick B. Johnston, “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Kelsey D. Atherton, “How We Killed Privacy—in 4 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013.

Neil M. Richards, “The Dangers of Surveillance,” Harvard Law Review 126:7 (May 2013).

Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan eds., Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

XVII. The Future of VNSAs

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 19.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapter 12.

Adam Elkus, “The State of the State,” War on the Rocks, June 16, 2014.

Peter Turchin, “A Theory for Formation of Large Empires” (2009).

Tunis Designates Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

Since the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, a collision course has been set between the Tunisian state and the salafi-jihadi organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). It highlights the utter failure of the Ennahda-led government to fully appreciate or understand AST as a movement. Ennahda believed it could use a light touch approach and attempt to co-opt AST and bring them into the political system. This strategy was fraught with false assumptions; most notably that AST itself stated repeatedly it is against the democratic process since it contravenes Islam and places men on the same level as God. Today, Tunis designated AST as a terrorist organization. How the Tunisian government uses this new mandate against AST will likely provide more information on AST’s connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and/or the extent to which it has a secret fighting apparatus.

AST’s Public Persona

Following the founding of AST in April 2011, it has promoted an image of an organization only interested in conducting da’wa (missionary activities). The leader of AST Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi) continually noted that Tunisia was not a land of jihad, but a land of da’wa and that his movement did not carry weapons. Abu Iyadh also emphasized that the media distorted AST and that one should “hear from them, not about them.” While it is true that the majority of AST’s activities have been related to da’wa like passing out religious literature, providing food and medical services to the needy, and putting on lectures, among other things, from the beginning there has been a more nefarious side of the group, too.

Ties to the Global Jihad

Most notably, Abu Iyadh previously was involved in the jihadi counter-culture of “Londonistan” in the 1990s where he studied under al-Qaeda’s European cleric Abu Qatadah al-Filistini. Further, in the late 1990s, Abu Iyadh traveled Afghanistan and was in charge of the Jalabad House, which housed Tunisian foreigner fighters and co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group with Tarek Maaroufi, who is also now a leader, though, with a less public role within AST. Abu Iyadh and Maaroufi are responsible for the planning, recruitment, and facilitation of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Messud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and ally of the West, two days prior to 9/11 in anticipation of the America’s response in Afghanistan. Maaroufi, along with Sami Ben Khamis Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, who are also leaders in AST, were a part of al-Qaeda’s recruitment and facilitation networks in Brussels and Milan in the 1990s.

In terms of post-AST founding, there have also been signs of duplicity. In interviews in the winter of 2012, Abu Iyadh hinted that he was inciting and recruiting members of his organization to fight abroad so as to provide different roles for members who were not interested in only conducting da’wa. There are reports that AST members were in northern Mali and there is evidence that AST members are fighting jihad in Syria. Further, AST’s official news Facebook page since its inception has promoted news and propaganda on and from the “mujahidin” in the various fronts from Afghanistan to Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Libya to Mali as well as typical anti-Western and anti-Arab ‘tyrant’ regime rhetoric. AST even had the London-based jihadi and former leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Hani al-Siba’i Skype into their second annual conference in May 2012.


Moreover, while AST has not called for jihad in Tunisia, some of its members have been involved in vigilante-type activities going all the way back to late spring 2011:

June 2011: In response to the Tunisian film “No God, No Master,” individuals protested and rioted on Avenue Habib Bourghiba in the heart of Tunis because AST and other Islamists viewed the film as blasphemous.

October 2011: Similarly, only a few months later, in the run up to the Constituent Assembly election, the private station Nessma TV, aired the movie Persepolis. It is about one young woman’s experience of the Islamic revolution in Iran and contains a scene in which God is depicted in human form — a blasphemous act for religious Muslims. This led AST’s leader Abu Iyadh to incite his followers to violence against it and activists looted the home of Nessma’s owner.

November 2011 – March 2012: Following the election, a small group of Salafi students, the ring leader being Muhammad Bakhti a member of AST, started a sit-in at Manouba University to force the dean Habib Kazdaghli to allow women to wear niqab in the classroom and during tests. This led to a violent confrontation with Kazdaghli who was recently acquitted of any wrong doing during the incident.

March 2012: On a day when AST had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise al-Qaeda’s black flag. Some of these demonstrators also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater.

June 2012: An art exhibit in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, which showed allegedly explicit images became the center of attention for AST and Salafis alike. They viewed it as an attack on the ‘holy’ and led to a riot for a few nights and confrontation with the police.

September 2012: Most notoriously, almost a year ago, members of AST as well as other Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy. Had the attack gone on much longer, it is likely that more American diplomats would have been killed similar to what occurred at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi a few days prior.

February 2013: Following the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, AST activated what it dubbed ‘Neighborhood Committees’ and ran around at night in different neighborhoods of major cities and smaller villages waving al-Qaeda’s black flag and serving vigilante justice against anyone they felt was misbehaving. How these individuals would assess this is unknown.

These are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know since there have likely been other smaller and unreported incidents, especially in the interior of the country. In addition to this, the Tunisian government believes that members of AST have been involved in the fighting against the military in Jebel Chaambi on the Tunisian-Algerian border over the past few months. It has also claimed that AST was responsible for the assassinations of leftist political figures Belaid and Muhammad Brahmi in February and July 2013. Both accusations are unverifiable and need more independent corroboration, but would not be at all surprising if true.

What Next?

Put together, it is understandable why the government would designate AST. Dealing with groups that use da’wa as a tactic to ingratiate themselves to the local population and therefore make it more difficult to crackdown on the movement is something quite familiar to the United States and its allies as it has tried to deal with groups like Hizballah and Hamas in the past. How the Tunisian government deals with the da’wa aspects of AST will likely show if they plan to fully crackdown on the organization or use a more judicious approach as it relates to actual members that have connections to terrorist activities or associates of AQIM. This will be a difficult balancing act since the Tunisian government if it fails could create a full-blown insurgency, which it is unlikely to be able to deal with due to not having the proper training as well as being stretched thin as it is. We will likely know more about the trajectory of how AST and the government/military respond to this new designation mandate in the coming weeks and months.

Abstract and updates on MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Given the length of yesterday’s post on Belmokhtar and MUJAO and the detail I used in explaining the subject, I decided to write an abstract for those who don’t want to wade through 3,000 words on Sahelian militant groups. I’ve also added in a few thoughts since yesterday. You can read the full post here.

The Mauritanian news service ANI carried the news Thursday that two closely linked Sahelian jihadist groups, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French, generally MUJWA in English) had merged with the group led by former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katibat al-Mulathimeen, creating a new group called al-Murabitun after the 11th-century Muslim empire that encompassed parts of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and southern Spain. While there is much we do not yet know about this group, including the identity of its leader, the post details some of my initial thoughts about the reasons behind the merger on a local and more international level, as well as what the merger might mean.

Given the close personal and operational ties between Belmokhtar and MUJAO, going back to the latter group’s founding, it is not surprising that the two merged. What is less clear is why the groups decided on a formal merger when their cooperation was so close, and why they did it now. One possibility is that the formalization of their relationship was meant to deal with organizational and leadership deficiencies in MUJAO, especially given the fact that the group has had to adapt after the French intervention in January of this year in Mali scattered the region’s jihadist groups.

Another possible explanation for the merger is that the impetus came from an outside force, notably al-Qaeda’s Core command in Pakistan. This is possible given Belmokhtar’s longstanding connections and frequent appeals to the group’s core leadership, and interesting timing in light of the reports that recently surfaced about a “conference” held electronically by Ayman al-Zawahiri with inputs from a number of representatives of al-Qaeda affiliates. Such a move could be a recognition of Belmokhtar’s high-profile attacks on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria in January, as well as the attacks on the Agadez military base and Arlit uranium mine in northern Niger in May. It could also be a sign of the continuing shifts in Sahelian militant structures, as AQIM continues to focus more on the Maghreb states while Belmokhtar and MUJAO further solidify their place as the Sahelian face of al-Qaeda. Without knowing more about the aforementioned conference, it’s impossible to say, though RFI’s report from this morning that the name of the group’s new leader may come “from Pakistan” suggests the hand of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Either way, we’ll know more when the new emir’s identity becomes public.

Given the rhetoric used in the initial announcement to ANI as well as a statement Belmokhtar made to the paper, it would seem that the group seeks to represent a continuation and evolution of AQIM’s “glocal” position, with a possible territorial expansion based on Belmokhtar’s growing regional connections and profile as well as ongoing events of intense interest to jihadis, such as the military coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In this context, the group’s name is very evocative; it represents on the one hand a continuation of AQIM’s use of local historical figures and references, with an eye to the themes and terms that will also have resonance with the global jihadist community. Notably, while the statements reference Egypt (which caught the eye of the international media) its stated focus remains French interests and those of France’s allies, again a continuation of past rhetorical and operational practices from both AQIM and Belmokhtar.

Finally, there is the question of why Belmokhtar would decide not to take over the new group himself. If the decision was made by AQC, then he may  not have had much choice in the matter. Given his taste for independent actions and flexibility, however, this arrangement would allow Belmokhtar to focus on his operational pursuits, rather than the management of a new and larger entity. Since writing the post, it appears that some analysts, notably France-based AQIM specialist Mathieu Guidère, have suggested that the merger and Belmokhtar’s language about the need to pass leadership on to a younger generation means that Belmokhtar is removing himself from the picture. While this is possible, I do not share Guidère’s interpretation. For years now, dubiously-sourced reports have circulated about Belmokhtar’s imminent plans to retire from the jihadist scene, to only pursue smuggling activity, to cut a deal with the Algerian government and more. Yet in this time Belmokhtar’s activity and status have grown, and these reports have all been proven false. So I will not believe that Belmokhtar has left the game until I see it.

Of Mergers, MUJAO, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as 'the one-eyed',  who broke away from Aqim to form al-Mulathamin










Yesterday morning, the Mauritanian news service Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) carried an announcement from  the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO in French (led, according to the story, by Ahmed Ould Amer, previously identified as the group’s military commander) had merged with longtime Algerian jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (“the masked/veiled Battalion”) to form a new jihadist group, al-Murabitun, an homage to the 11th-Century Almoravid Empire that founded Marrakesh and at one point stretched from southern Spain south to Mauritania, and also included parts of what is now Algeria. In the initial statement, the group spoke of the merger as part of an effort to unite Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” in order to meet the “zionist campaign targeting Islam and the Muslims.” The statement also notes that the group will fall under the leadership of another emir who for the moment is unnamed, which a source told ANI is a non-Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan as well as American forces in 2002, before eventually traveling to Mali and taking on a leadership role in fighting against French forces.

In the more complete Arabic version of the ANI article (full disclosure, I used Google Translate and got help from my blog partner Aaron Zelin for these references), the statement mentions a litany of abuses against Muslims, including the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in 2006 in Denmark, attacks on Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Northern Mali, and the rejection by secularists of all things Islamic, specifically citing the recent coup in Egypt that deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The statement calls for unity of Muslims and Islamic groups, and specifically threatens attacks against France and its interests around the world, as well as those of its allies. The statement also hailed Mauritanian ‘ulema who expressed opposition to the French intervention in Mali, and closed by affirming the group’s commitment to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and drew its inspiration from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, notably Mullah Omar, Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. As Aaron pointed out to me, the statement specifically uses the term “Nafir” a term used by Abdullah Azzam and Abu Musab al-Suri to refer to a call to arms or to battle, in this case “to the land of jihad” — though the statement does not specifically state where this “land of jihad” is.

In another statement to ANI (so far only published in Arabic), Belmokhtar explained the decision to form the group by making strikingly similar statements to the release announcing the creation of al-Murabitun, saying that the group would operate regionally in North Africa as a first step toward uniting the mujahideen and all Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” and affirming the commitment not just to Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, but to the intellectual, moral, political, and military ideas and methods espoused by bin Laden. Belmokhtar repeatedly stressed the need for unity and explained why he was not taking on the group’s leadership role in saying that it was time for a new generation of leaders during a time of “promising prospects” in the advancement of religion.

What follows are some of my thoughts about what this merger may or may not mean, what the shift specifically says about militancy in the Sahel, and how it fits into broader regional shifts and those specifically related to al-Qaeda. I should caution that these are initial thoughts, and may very well change as new information comes out related to this new venture.

Chronicle of a merger foretold

For the small group of people passionately tracking affairs in northern Mali and the broader region, a merger between Belmokhtar — who established a new katiba late last year while also taking his own katibat al-Mulathimeen from AQIM’s command structure — and MUJAO will likely not come as much of a surprise. Belmokhtar has always been close to MUJAO, and all of those who have at various times been named as MUJAO’s leaders, including Hamada Mohamed Ould Kheiru, Sultan Ould Badi, and now Ahmed Ould Amer (also known as Ahmed al-Telmassi, a reference to his origins in the Tilemsi Valley north of Gao) either worked with at various times or directly under Belmokhtar, and Ould Kheiru and Ould Amer are both reportedly very close to Belmokhtar. This closeness has been apparent for some time (I have written about it here, here, here, and here), and became all the more apparent after northern Mali fell last year and Belmokhtar chose to quite openly set up shop in Gao, the city that MUJAO controlled partially from April until June and then exclusively until they were forced out by the French intervention. Some sources have even described Belmokhtar as one of MUJAO’s original founders.

Moreover, MUJAO and Belmokhtar worked closely together, whether during the attack in Gao in which Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces expelled the Tuareg MNLA from the city, to when Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces took control of the smuggling town of In Khalil in December, and then the coordinated attacks at In Amenas in January and against a military base in Agadez and uranium mining facility at Arlit in northern Niger in May, as well as the assault on Niamey’s civil prison on June 1.

So if they were working together before, why merge now? For one thing, MUJAO has undergone a series of changes in the short time that it has existed, and may still be working its issues out. On the one hand, MUJAO has carried out or taken part in numerous successful operations (in the odd metrics often applied by jihadist groups to their own actions), including small- and large-scale suicide bombings, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom and possibly the release of prisoners, and the administration of a city — even as it’s harsh interpretation of shari’ah helped drive people away from the group.

Still, MUJAO has gone through a series of important shifts. In October 2011 MUJAO’s stated goal was to propagate jihad in West Africa, referencing key figures in regional Muslim history in the process, yet its first operations were all against Algerian targets. After the fall of northern Mali the group was involved in the administration of Gao and increasingly the areas around it, even while staging a large suicide attack at the Algerian Gendarmerie base in Ouargla in June. With the jihadist push south (in which MUJAO took part, despite reported opposition from Kheiru) and French intervention a new phase began, one of guerrilla attacks in multiple parts of northern Mali, and the involvement of MUJAO fighters and sometimes key personnel in the In Amenas and Niger attacks.

During this time, the group has also experimented with different structures and dealt with leadership conflict; as I previously noted, it remains very unclear who actually runs MUJAO, and different leaders at different times have clashed with others over the handling of matters in northern Mali, notably when Ould Badi reportedly took his fighters to join Ansar al Din last fall in opposition to the takeover of In Khalil. The group has, by my count, reorganized its leadership and battalions at least three times before now, including Belmokhtar’s reported creation in January of a “Mujahideen shura” that would comprise fighters from MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathimeen, and the designation of Ould Badi as the head of a group specifically tasked with dealing with MUJAO’s remaining hostages.

Today’s announcement, then, appears to be the latest in a series of adaptations to changing environments in the region, and may even just be the formalization of a merger that had already happened. It could also be, as Mauritanian journalist and AQIM expert Hacen Ould Lebatt noted in an email, an attempt to give the group true leadership, which it has lacked since its founding. In that vein, it will be very interesting to see who is actually taking over this new batallion, but if ANI’s description is accurate it will be someone with extensive jihadist experience, as well as someone who mirrors Belmokhtar’s path, with a history both in Afghanistan (possibly with al-Qaeda’s core organization) and the Sahel.

It’s evolution, baby

As with many things related to Belmokhtar and the past activities of those close to him, the statements and group formation have both very local and very international registers. Over the past few years I have repeatedly expressed my support for the conception of AQIM and related groups as “glocal”, groups that often think and speak globally but generally act much more locally.

For lack of a better way to put it, the group’s announcement is a very “al-Qaeda” statement, redolent with themes and direct messages linked to the group and it’s “core” leadership. While jihadist statements often appear very similar by virtue of shared ideologies and reference points (not to mention a shared self-image), it is worth pointing out that this statement and Belmokhtar’s comments make repeated and explicit reference not just to al-Qaeda’s leadership (as well as the Taliban), but also the reference of specific concepts favored in the past by leading global jihadist figures, such as Azzam and al-Suri. Moreover, the statement explicitly threatens not just a more “global” jihadist target, in the form of France, but also situates al-Murabitun, at least rhetorically, as trying to unify and defend Muslims across the region, even papering over the decades-long disputes between jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood to present all groups as part of a broader Islamist project, one opposed in this context by Crusaders, Zionists, and secularists.

On the other hand, the statement still fits within Belmokhtar’s past and more recent history of imbuing his speech and actions with local and more regional and international significance. Despite long being derided as a mere smuggler, a criminal, and as one paper briefly wrote after the In Amenas attack, a “One-Eyed Pirate King of the Sahara”, Belmokhtar has a long jihadist resume that includes training in Afghanistan and two decades of membership in Algerian militant groups, from the GIA to the GSPC to AQIM. He was the first Algerian militant commander since the GIA to actually stage an attack outside of Algeria (and he paid direct homage to the GIA unit that carried out those attacks), and he has for years spoken of his admiration and loyalty to bin Laden, Zawahiri, and situated his own actions and thinking within those of al-Qaeda. Before he formed al-Mouwakoune bi-Dima (“Those who Sign with Blood”), Belmokhtar’s close confidant Omar Ould Hamaha confirmed that Belmokhtar would still remain under the orders of al-Qaeda’s core command.

At the same time, while this new venture continues Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s rhetorical association with al-Qaeda, it also emphasizes the group’s regional focus, both in explicitly mentioning its operations within North Africa (even as the group hopes to expand, geographically) and specifically in threatening France, the onetime colonial power in much of North and West Africa. This is, in effect, still a continuation of AQIM’s mold, given that the group was given entrance in al-Qaeda to “form a bone in the throats of the crusaders” in Zawahiri’s words – notably France. And Belmokhtar’s attacks against international targets, especially at In Amenas and in Niger, have had both local and international resonance.

With this new group and announcement, Belmokhtar and MUJAO have sought to broaden their rhetorical horizons, notably through reference to hot-button current issues to jihadis current events and the struggles of Islamists in Egypt, while still retaining the focus on North Africa and presumably the Sahel, something AQIM has also done with their propaganda in recent years. One need only look at the group’s name to see this significance; the Almoravids have long featured in AQIM propaganda and group naming, providing an ideal symbol for the group (and now its offshoots), as a pious and strict Muslim Berber empire that spread across North Africa and into Andalucia (a prominent historical touchstone for jihadis).*

Belmokhtar out of the spotlight?

If you’ve gotten this far, you might ask why, if Belmokhtar is so important and central to happenings regarding MUJAO, he did not simply take command of this new group himself. The honest answer is that at this point, I have no idea. However, I do not share the surprise that some very smart AQIM watchers have expressed that Belmokhtar would not submit to someone else’s control; he has at least paid lip service in the past to his position under al-Qaeda’s command as well as that of his AQIM leadership (notably Abdelmalek Droukdel), and his problems with leadership in the past seem to have largely been specific rivalries, such as that with his fellow Sahelian AQIM commander Abou Zeid or with Droukdel or AQIM’s shura in northern Algeria. That said, it took him years to break with this structure, and only, it seems, under immense pressure from the organization itself. He also operated under multiple commanders in the Sahel, including Yahya Djouadi and Nabil Makhloufi, without actually breaking from the organization.

What is clear is that Belmokhtar likes to do his own thing, and has made wide-ranging contacts outside of his native Algeria, from Mauritania (where he has recruited fighters for years) to Mali (where he has married into at least one local family) to Niger (where he has operated and recruited) to Libya (where he spent time in late 2011 and 2012 making connections in key areas like Oubaria, connections that reportedly helped him acquire weapons and later operate). I would suggest the possibility, then, that accepting a technically subordinate role for Belmokhtar may not be a slight, but instead the chance for him to divest himself of the tasks of running a larger organization in order to focus on his operations.

This explanation is of course speculative, and rests largely on who the new leader of the brand-new al-Murabitun is. Their identity will hopefully tell us, for instance, if the emir is a friend or contact of Belmokhtar’s, another figure of the Sahelian jihad, or perhaps someone imposed from the outside. It is possible, for instance, that this maneuvering came about as a result of the now-infamous “conference” headed online by Zawahiri and involving the participation of a number of al-Qaeda leaders and the heads of affiliated or linked groups.  Without knowing who participated in that conference, and in particular without knowing if Belmokhtar or anyone linked to his organization or MUJAO participated, it is impossible to say. But the identity of al-Murabitun’s chief may tell us some important things about what exactly the group wants to do, and where.

What’s the point?

I’ve explained from an organizational perspective why I think this new group may have been created. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why, on a more general level, this group would come into being. Perhaps it is as simple as needing to assert more control over an unruly organization buffeted by intense combat with French forces and pressure to scatter across the Sahel.

On the one hand, the tumult in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia could have provided the impetus to create a new group, or the appearance of a new group, in order to take advantage of the chaos and signal an intention to expand operations accordingly. The references to Egypt, for instance, stuck out to some as a direct threat to attack there. While this is absolutely possible, in light of the lively weapons and other smuggling networks from Egypt to Libya and the rapidly expanding conflict with jihadists in Egypt, the actual statement only directly threatens attacks against French targets and those of their allies. Reference to Egypt here seems much more like a rhetorical device, one that will certainly resonate with many people, but not necessarily a signal of impending attacks.

While it is also possible that this group’s creation was ordered by al-Qaeda’s central command, it is just as likely that the group is an attempt to set up a more coherent jihadist organization in the Sahel and North Africa with a more explicitly broad reach. While AQIM likely has connections with fighters in Libya and perhaps beyond, and is said by regional intelligence agencies to be playing a significant role in events in Tunisia, notably in Jebel Chaambi on the border with Algeria, its actual activities seem to have remained focused largely on Algeria. In the last months and even years, AQIM has quietly increased its activities in the north, largely concentrated around traditional tactics of IED emplacement and ambushes. Yet this still leaves space for another organization willing to engage in attacks across a wider geographical space, and in particular the kind of large-scale attacks that Belmokhtar and MUJAO executed in Algeria and Niger.

In this context, it is interesting that al-Murabitun’s leader is supposedly not Algerian, and that the group has threatened attacks across a wide front; MUJAO was purportedly created due to anger among non-Algerian members of AQIM, notably Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, that too much preference was still given to Algerians for leadership positions within the organization, and that AQIM had strayed too far from the path of jihad. The death of Abou Zeid in March, along with other AQIM leaders close to him, may have made even more space for Belmokhtar to operate.

Ultimately, this kind of analysis is an exercise in trying to read dancing shadows in a candlelit room. We do not know far more than we will know about these groups, their interactions with each other, and the interpersonal and environmental dynamics that drive them. Hopefully as more information emerges our knowledge of these moving pieces will change, grow, and sharpen. Until then, all we can do is continue to watch this space.

*As an added aside, al-Murabitun (those who do ribat), comes from the Arabic word for fortress, and denotes warriors on the edge of an empire or state who protect those inside or expand the territory. For those who have read al-Qaeda’s history, that sounds an awful lot like al-Qaeda’s original ideal, to establish a small group of fighters who would be a vanguard for a broader revolution that would sweep the Muslim umma. Thanks again to Aaron for pointing out the original meaning of the word.

New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

Over the past few years there have rumblings about training camps in Libya that are run by jihadi entities such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in southern Libya as well as ones by Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the organization most likely responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. It has been difficult to confirm these camps due to the secretive nature of these groups and the lack of self reported evidence by these groups. For the first time, though, on August 6, 2013, credible sources within Libya have confirmed such camps exist.

On Facebook, Moaoya EL Wrffli, posted two videos of two separate Tunisians that had been detained by locals in the Darnah region and later interrogated. The two videos below provide fascinating insights into Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and its non-publicized activities as well as facilitation networks as it relates to the war in Syria. Based on the information given in the these videos, even though they were just posted online, it is likely that they are from late spring/early summer 2012. Highlighting that ASL was already at that point very active with training fighters for Syria as well as other likely nefarious activities in light of what we know would eventually happen in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

First Detainee:

The first individual mentions that his name is Usama al-Jufayr and admits that he is of Tunisian descent. Says he entered Benghazi, Libya in May 2012 and his purpose was for training to go fight in Syria. al-Jufayr states that the group running these camps is Katibat Ansar al-Sharia, which was the name used by ASL prior to consulate attack and only changed it afterwards for rebranding purposes. The detainee claims that the regime in Tunisia needs reform, but the set up in Libya is “al-hamdullilah,” suggesting good or permissive to the activities they are undertaking. It is likely that al-Jufayr is indeed a jihadi because he notes that parliamentary systems are contrary to the Islamic sharia, which in his eyes is the only acceptable system of governance. Further, he notes that those training with him had not been involved in military jihad previously and come from civilian backgrounds. The program takes twenty days and only included up to that point weapons training and no religious schooling.

Second Detainee:

The second individual does not give his name, but claims he is Tunisian as well. This man entered Benghazi, Libya by plane on April 20, 2012 and also joined the ASL camp in Benghazi. He notes that it is more like army training than police training. He also highlights that he was recruited to this camp by a man named ‘Abd al-Rahman from Tunis and had previously not known about it. Unlike al-Jufayr, the second detainee suggests that there is other types of training noting that he had been involved with learning guerilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. This training was supposed to last for about a month. In the end, his goal was to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, illustrating that he might not be a jihadi and wanted to join up for more altruistic reasons, though, it is impossible to know for sure.

These two videos show that although ASL’s public image has been tied to its da’wa (missionary work) over the past eleven months, it is likely that they are also still active in training individuals to fight in Syria. Moreover, it shows in the case of the second detainee that there are active facilitation networks between recruiters in Tunisia and training camps to get fighters prepared for Syria before they head off to the front lines. These two videos likely only scratch the surface. While some might be skeptical of these videos, based on the level of detail, and what we generally know about how these groups and networks operate, I am confident that they are legitimate. That being said, more information is definitely needed to fill gaps in what we know about all these types of activities. Hopefully, this is the first of other leaks that uncovers more information related to the nexus of  these jihadi recruitment and facilitation networks.

Thanks to Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute, for helping with some of the translations of the Libyan/Tunisian Arabic. 


IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Part 7: Qur’an Competition for Youth in Lower Shabelle (August 2013)

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 1


-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen:

-Part 1 can be viewed HERE

-Part 2 can be viewed HERE

-Part 3 can be viewed HERE

-Part 4 can be viewed HERE

-Part 5 can be viewed HERE

-Part 6 can be viewed HERE


Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 2

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 3

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 4

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 5

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 6

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 7

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 8

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Part 6: Al-Shabab Military Forces in Baraawe, Late April 2013

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 1__________________________

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen:

-Part 1 can be viewed HERE

-Part 2 can be viewed HERE

-Part 3 can be viewed HERE

-Part 4 can be viewed HERE

-Part 5 can be viewed HERE

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 2

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 3

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 4

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 5

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 6

Muhammad Abu Abdullah (Al-Shabab, Al-Shabaab) governor of Lower Shabelle

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, Al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 12

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 11

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 10

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 9

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 8

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 7

Niger attacks and the Sahel’s shifting jihad

Areva's uranium mine in Arlit was targeted, where 13 people were hurt.Against the odds and predictions of many analysts, Niger has, up until recently, been able to fend off the security crises that have shaken the Sahel over the last two years. However, with the near-simultaneous suicide attacks that struck two key northern areas — a military base in the key city of Agadez and the uranium mine in Arlit run by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French nuclear giant Areva — this period of relative calm may have come to an end. While news is still emerging, this post is an attempt to provide context and a preliminary assessment of what we know so far about these attacks. I will also look at what the attacks signify regarding the evolution and current state of jihadist militancy in the Sahel, before briefly looking at the overall security environment in Niger.

The bombings took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, about 30 minutes apart. At Arlit, suicide bombers believed to have been in military uniforms snuck their truck into the compound before detonating their explosives, wounding 13 Nigerien Areva employees and killing one. In Agadez, northern Niger’s most important city and a nodal point for the military as well as licit and illicit business, the toll was far worse: the initial suicide bomb killed at least 20 soldiers and a civilian, while several fighters reportedly equipped with suicide vests took several Nigerien army officer-trainees hostage. It was not until the following morning that French Special Operations Forces intervened alongside Nigerien soldiers to clear the holdouts, but not before the militants executed three of the officer-trainees. While Niger’s defense minister initially denied that any hostages had been taken, as many as three jihadists and three hostages may have been killed in the assault. At least 25 people were killed in total, and at least eight jihadists may have been involved in the attacks, the first suicide bombings ever on Nigerien soil. The attacks were also among the worst security incidents in the region since the January 2013 assault on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria by fighters operating under former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Just hours after the attack and an initial claim of responsibility by the AQIM spinoff MUJAO, it was Belmokhtar’s turn to claim that he too was responsible for the attacks. He followed a claim by his longtime media representative Hacen Ould Khelil (also known as Juleibib) with a written claim of responsibility sent to the Mauritanian Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), and also posted on jihadist forums. The MUJAO statement referenced Niger’s involvement in France’s “war against shari’ah” and promised attacks in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin, while Belmokhtar’s statement on behalf of his Katibat al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those who Sign With  Blood”) promised further attacks in Niger if they do not withdraw their forces from Mali. It also threatened attacks against other countries involved in peacekeeping and other operations there conducted by “columns of jihadists and martyrdom candidates…awaiting the order” to attack their targets. Juleibib, for his part, said that Belmokhtar himself supervised the “operational plan” for the attack. Both Belmokhtar’s and Juleibib’s statements described the operation as a joint attack by MUJAO and al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima. Juleibib added that the group of fighters involved jihadists from Sudan, Western Sahara, and Mali, and that the operation was named for deceased Saharan AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, long reputed to be locked in a rivalry with Belmokhtar for dominance in the Sahel.

Belmokhtar’s return

Belmokhtar’s re-emergence caught many by surprise — at least those who believed the less-than-convincing assertions from Chadian officials and then President Idriss Deby, first that Chad’s forces had killed Belmokhtar in March in Mali, and then that Belmokhtar had “blown himself up.” If Belmokhtar’s role in these attacks are confirmed, it would mark the second time this year that he had staged significant and deadly attacks in the Sahel, attacks that have an increasing geographic footprint at a time when Belmokhtar and others linked to AQIM and a slew of other jihadist groups have also deepened ties in countries like Libya, from where Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou stated the Arlit and Agadez attackers crossed into Niger. And despite the persistence of “gangster-jihadist” headlines and monikers to describe Belmokhtar, he appears to have shown again his willingness and ability to stage attacks against well-protected and vitally important targets.

First, let’s look at what these attacks do (and don’t) tell us about militancy in the Sahel. On the surface, there are points of comparison to In Amenas — the heavy use of high explosives (400 kg at Arlit according to Le Monde), coordinated attacks on heavily-secured targets with an experienced, well-trained, and well-prepared group of fighters who almost certainly had up-to-date information about their targets and a level of local complicity or assistance in planning and staging the attacks, and attacks against targets of strategic importance to regional governments as well as Western countries.

The attacks showed, on the one hand, the continued close relationship between Belmokhtar and the fighters around him and MUJAO. Various sources disagree on when, exactly, the rapprochement between Belmokhtar and MUJAO took place; while MUJAO ostensibly started as a breakaway of AQIM, key leaders of the group included longtime Belmokhtar associates, and Belmokhtar made his headquarters in Gao, MUJAO’s base of operations in northern Mali, soon after the city fell. The two groups of fighters also collaborated militarily throughout last year and the Islamist offensive in Mali in January 2013, and some analysts have even described MUJAO as having initially been Belmokhtar’s initiative.

Regardless, the collaboration has no doubt helped propel MUJAO forward as an extremely active group in terms of military activity. Since the January offensive, MUJAO has claimed all but one of the suicide bombings and combined-arms attacks against Malian, French, and other African forces in Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, and elsewhere. MUJAO and commanders close to Belmokhtar (notably Omar Ould Hamaha) have also been involved in fighting in places like In Khalil, Ber, and Anéfis against the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and has deployed suicide bombings to varying degrees of effectiveness.

The assaults in Agadez and Arlit, however, are notable for the scope and tactics deployed, as well as explicit decisions in targeting. The Niger attacks, unsurprisingly, far more closely resemble the siege at In Amenas (and earlier MUJAO attacks in the Algerian cities of Tamanrasset and Ouargla) than the more guerrilla-style engagements in northern Mali. For instance, the Agadez and Arlit attacks appear to have used vastly higher quantities of explosives than other engagements in Mali, and made more of an effort to plan assaults in a way that would create higher casualties and more damage, in particular to infrastructure. While the vast majority of those killed in the attacks died at the military base in Agadez, the attacks at Arlit reportedly seriously damaged the facility, shutting operations down for the moment at the Somaïr mine for at least two months, a shutdown that will cost an estimated 27 million Euro a month as the company continues to assess the true extent of damage there. Likewise, various reports from In Amenas have showed that at least one of the key goals for the attackers was to destroy or seriously damage the facility, not just to kill or abduct foreign workers.

In some ways, the Niger attacks marked not just a continuation but an escalation from In Amenas. Both attacks struck key targets in the energy industry, targets that were not just vital sites of foreign investment, but sites that were of key importance for both international governments but also for local governments. The Tigentourine site (which is still not fully operational nearly five months after the attack) provides close to 10% of Algeria’s natural gas and is exploited jointly by the Norwegian company Statoil and British Petroleum, though the latter have expressed concerns about their the level of security around oil and gas sites in Algeria. The Somaïr mine, meanwhile, is the largest of the Areva-linked mines in Niger, a country which provides approximately 37% of Areva’s uranium and nearly 20% of France’s uranium, in addition to 5% of Niger’s GDP. For a poor country whose biggest private company is Areva, as well as a rich country heavily dependent on nuclear power plants, uranium production in northern Niger is thus of extreme importance.

Moreover, while Arlit has been the site of AQIM activity in the past (notably the kidnapping of seven employees or dependents of Areva subcontractors in September 2010 and the theft in 2011 and 2012 of drilling and other heavy equipment) this attack marks the first attempt to seriously impact production and damage the site itself, much like In Amenas. However, the attacks exhibited differences in the specific use of violence. While the In Amenas attackers brutally executed some foreign workers outright and turned others into walking bombs, Algerian workers at the site were largely spared violence, something the attackers made a point of explaining to the workers. In Niger no such overt attempt to spare Muslims was made, though it is worth noting that Muslim soldiers are hardly a new target for Belmokhtar and AQIM, who have in fact long restricted their attacks either to foreign government targets or regional military targets, and whose units have clashed with Algerian, Mauritanian, Malian, and Nigerien military units. Still, the Agadez bombings and subsequent assaults show a more direct, effective, and planned assault on a major military base, something more familiar to Iraq or Afghanistan than the Sahel.

Rarely, however, have AQIM or AQIM-linked fighters attacked such heavily-protected targets. Since late 2010, France has quietly been increasing its Special Operations and other military presence in Niger and other Sahelian countries, with the troops serving in France’s Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS, more or less the French equivalent of the American JSOC) serving under the auspices of Operation Sabre. American and French (and possibly other) Special Forces have been providing training for Nigerien forces for years. Niger was part of the original four countries under the American Pan-Sahel Initiative, launched in 2002. And intelligence, support, and kinetic forces have been increasingly present in Niamey and points north, notably Agadez — where the American military initially wanted to base surveillance drones currently in Niamey — and Arlit. In addition to the 500 Nigerien troops in Arlit and the 5,000 soldiers on the border with Mali, there are reportedly 60 French SOF members in Arlit alone, likely part of the post-Operation Serval deployment of SOF to reinforce mining sites, including Arlit. Yet despite this impressive array of forces and security arrangements, Belmokhtar and MUJAO still opted to strike.

Niger and the region beyond

The attacks marked the emergence of Niger as a new terrain of combat operations for Sahelian jihadists, demonstrating the migration of fighting away from Algeria and Mali as well as providing more possible evidence of the emergence of southern Libya as a site for militant training, planning, and staging for operations in other countries. This is the continuation of a multi-year process of diversification of militancy in the Sahel. This period has seen splits and subdivisions within militant groups that has allowed for more targeted recruitment and a re-focusing of militant activity along broadly regional lines. In keeping with its stated foundational purpose MUJAO has expanded its operations in Sahelian or Saharan areas (Mali, southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, and possibly Chad), while AQIM, notably the northern Algeria-based katibat have adopted a lower public profile while moving progressively further east into Tunisia, among other areas.

The AP’s Rukmini Callimachi uncovered fascinating evidence of some of these internal splits and divisions in Timbuktu, including a letter from AQIM’s shura chastising Belmokhtar for a litany of purported slights. These critiques focused in part on Belmokhtar’s failure to follow orders, but also failure to stage a large-scale “spectacular” attack, a supposed deficiency many specialists noted Belmokhtar may have been trying to fix first with the attack at In Amenas and now in northern Niger. It is notable, then, that Belmokhtar decided to name the attack after his erstwhile rival Abou Zeid, a sign of conciliation and unity among Sahel-based jihadists after the splits of the last year that could also be seen as a snub in the direction of AQIM in the north — though we should be careful not to read too much into a name. What is clear, though, is that jihadism in the Sahel has bled progressively into new areas even as groups shift and change orientation, all the while continuing to draw in a diverse cross-section of actors and even groups.

Looking at this new map of jihadist activity in North Africa and the Sahel, it would be premature to posit a clean distinction between these groups nor the emergence of what some have termed an “arc of instability” in North and West Africa, but rather to show the diversification and spread of these movements among other salafi-jihadi groups that have emerged in the Maghreb and Sahel and have either sent fighters to places like northern Mali for combat and training or otherwise come into contact and forged relationships with their more-established counterparts. This is an ongoing process that has already had a marked influence in militant attacks from Libya to northern Nigeria, one that will continue to evolve and impact parts of the region in different but serious ways.

This impact will likely be felt in an acute way in Niger. For the past two years, Niger has juggled an almost impossibly complex security situation. The government of Mahamadou Issoufou has dealt with the fallout from the crisis in Libya, including the return of hundreds of thousands of fighters and workers as well as the loss of remittances and patronage, the collapse of Mali next door, a worsening of the security situation on the southern border with Nigeria, and according to interviews in Niamey last month the rumblings of unrest in Toubou areas in northeastern Niger. And now, despite having a fairly professional and well-trained military, not to mention intelligence, material, and combat support from Western countries, a well-trained group of fighters was still able to penetrate and damage two heavily-protected and important areas.

Increased attacks in the country, whether in the north or in the capital, would increase the strain on a government that already prioritizes security issues (albeit with good reason). Niger’s defense budget, which occupies 10% of the total budget, has been increased twice in two years, and nearly half the armed forces are either in Mali or on the border with Mali. Further unrest in Niger or on the borders will make things increasingly difficult for the country to muddle through, despite its intelligent handling of past crises and maneuvering over the last two years. This is a particularly acute concern in light of evidence of local radicalization and Nigerien recruitment to MUJAO, the reports of increased connections over the past several years between AQIM, MUJAO, and Boko Haram, and the increased Boko Haram activities in northern Nigeria.

Many questions remain about the attacks last Thursday and their effect on the region. We will get answers to some of those questions, but not all. But the attacks in northern Niger have once more shown the determination of militants to stage significant attacks, cast a light on the changing nature of militancy in the Maghreb and Sahel, and shown the persistent security challenges facing the region’s fragile states.

A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas)

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr  كرار عبد ألامير أبو أسدLiwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas “martyr” Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad: “We’re [all] Your ‘Abbas, O’ [Sayyida] Zaynab

-By Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

July 26, 2013: Read my article, “Zaynab’s Guardians: The Emergence of Shi’a Militias in Syria,” CTC Sentinel (July 2013)  HERE.



A few initial notes/observations about Shi’i historical presence in Syria and the emergence of a pro-Syrian government militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Brigade of Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas/Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas; Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas)  in Syria:

(1) It is clear that the Iranian government has an interest on the part of the Iranian government and its regional allies in expanding their sphere(s) of influence in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries and among Muslim communities, Shi’i and Sunni.  While recognizing this desire and organizational, economic, and military support from the Iranian government to allied groups in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, it is important to also understand the goals of these local actors in accepting such support.

Iranian government missionary activity and the emergence of Qum as the premier location of Twelver Shi’i religious education following the expulsion of foreign students and intensification of Iraqi Ba’th targeting of the Shi’i religious leadership and political activists in the late 1970s has allowed the Iranian government to expand its influence to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as well as to Western Europe, West Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.  It is important to recognize, however, that the Iranian government’s goals are not shared by all Twelver Shi’is and the claimed religious authority of ‘Ali Khamenei is not universally recognized.  Critiques of the late Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni’s conception of wilayat al-faqih emerged the very year of Iran’s Revolution and have continued to be written to the present day.  The politics of Iranian government attempts to expand its sphere of influence and the local factors aiding and hindering such expansion are complex and should be considered in any analysis of Twelver Shi’i communities and political activism.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 1A photograph showing members of Liwa Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas with men who appear to have been performing one of the mourning rituals involving bloodletting during the Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn and his party.  Not all Twelver Shi’is perform these rituals and Shi’i mujtahids have taken different positions on the permissibility of such rituals.  Some have noted that none of the Twelve Imams, according to Shi’i tradition, performed such rituals, even in mourning for the Ahl al-Bayt.  The rituals are particularly popular among segments of the South Asian, Iraqi, and Afghan Twelver Shi’i communities as well as followers of the Lebanese AMAL party and adherents (Shiraziyyin) to the Shirazi family of religious scholars, a member of whom founded Damascus’ Zaynabiyya seminary (hawza).

(2) Individual motivations for joining groups such as Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas may differ from the reasons the Iranian government or other state or powerful non/quasi-state actors have for supporting, organizing, or backing such groups.  As Thomas Hegghammer has noted in his studies of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon, it is often very difficult to know exactly what the motivations were for specific individuals in becoming a “foreign fighter” since martyr biographies and accounts (martyrologies) released after their deaths often address/justify their decision and involvement in certain conflicts after the fact.  Thus, they are not always reliable in understanding the actual motivations, outside of hagiographical narratives.  There may (and in my opinion, likely are) personalized pietistic reasons (from the viewpoint of volunteers/recruits) at play in the decision of at least some of the individual Shi’is fighting under the Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas banner.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Ali in bullets)“[Imam] ‘Ali”

(3) It’s very important to note the deep-rooted reverence and love Twelver Shi’is have for Zaynab bint ‘Ali (Sayyida Zaynab), which, in my view, almost certainly has played a role in motivating at least some of the individuals who have traveled to Syria to, as they see it, defend her shrine and other important Shi’i shrines from destruction and desecration by some of the Syrian rebel groups.

Among her roles in Shi’i tradition, Zaynab is believed to have been one of the main reasons that the message of Husayn (Hussein, Hussain), the third Shi’i Imam, and thus Islam (according to the Shi’i point of view) was preserved even after his martyrdom at the hands of the Umayyad army of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.  Her defiant speech in front of the Umayyad caliph himself is particularly heralded in the Shi’i tradition, particularly during the annual Muharram rituals of ‘Ashura, which commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and many of his small party (including his half brother, al-‘Abbas, whose honorific “Abu al-Fadl”/”father of” denotes his eldest son, Fadl.)  His mother, Fatima bint Hizam al-Kilabiyya, was one of Imam ‘Ali ibn Talib’s wives and, according to Shi’i tradition, raised his sons by Fatima al-Zahra/Fatima bint Muhammad (the Prophet) as if they were her own.  Al-‘Abbas, to Shi’is, is one of the heroes of Karbala, of whom portraits are painted and nasheeds and mourning recitations (latmiyas) recited during Muharram.

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

(3) The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine in Damascus has long been a center for a community of Twelver Shi’is and popular devotees to the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), both residential and scholastic (it’s been the site of a seminary, the Zaynabiyya, affiliated with the Shirazi family of scholars since the 1970s) as well as a center of Shi’i pilgrimage. Shi’i shrines, however, are also located in other areas of the city, such as that of Ruqaya bint ‘Husayn and Sukaina bint Husayn.  These shrines have benefited from Iranian and Syrian governmental funding of restoration and expansion projects, but their importance as local holy sites and the sites of pilgrimage for the region’s Shi’is predates the advent of Iran’s “Islamic Republic.”   These sites, however, have benefited from state patronage, which helped them become fully integrated as regular stops for Shi’i pilgrims from abroad (at least before the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Asad).  Before the Syrian civil war, it and other important shrines in Damascus were regular sites of Shi’i pilgrimage, often as part of pilgrimage (ziyarat) trips that also visited Shi’i shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian and Syrian state support and promotion of the Syrian Shi’i shrines in the 1980s was a part of both countries’ shared opposition to the Iraqi Ba’th government, which had imposed itself on the Shi’i shrines in Iraq, going as far as to appoint its own officials to “supervise” the sites in cities such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.  Similarly, the Zaynabiyya hawza benefited from an influx of seminary students, including a number of Afghan Hazara Shi’is, from neighboring Iraq expelled by Saddam in the second half of the 1970s.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Wahhabis)“We’re coming, O’ Zaynab…Thirsty for blood of the Wahhabis (al-wahhabiyya)…BANNER: We Heed Your Call/are at your service, O’ Zaynab,” denoting the Salafi foes that, according to the few available sources, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas see themselves as fighting.  Pro-Brigade Facebook pages and Internet postings often include photographs of killed “Wahhabis” and members, the sites claim, of puritanical Salafi rebel groups such as the Al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)-connected Jabhat al-Nusra.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas“We Heed Your Call/are at Your Service. O’ Asad”

(4) Shi’i presence and shrines have existed in Syria, including in the north, from much earlier periods.  Many of the Sunni rulers during the medieval period also had pro-‘Alid inclinations even if they themselves were not Shi’is.

(5) Syrian Sunnis (or some of them) also revere these figures. Salafis, due to their iconoclasm, oppose such shrines to varying degrees, the most extreme being actively targeting them for destruction.

(6) Some individual members and supporters are likely swayed by the claimed “axis of resistance” image heralded by the Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon.  According to this worldview, support for the besieged Syrian government is a way of resisting what is seen as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader world.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah & Bashar al-Asad)An Internet poster from a pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas Facebook page showing Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right) and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad.  The photograph of Nasrallah was taken after the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war and has clearly been edited to show light emanating from the book (presumably the Qur’an).  The same is true of the posed image of al-Asad.  Both are shown by the designer as pious (thus, presumably, deserving of support).

(7) The membership (and death) of a number of Iraqi Shi’is with Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas in Syria may have much to do with both the presence prior to the civil war of a large Iraqi expatriate community and contention in Iraq over who truly represents the legacy of the late grand mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  Though one of his sons, Muqtada, leads what can be termed the “mainstream” Sadrist trend (Tayyar al-Sadr, al-Sadriyyun), which is composed of political, social, and paramilitary branches, he faces competitors from among those who studied or claimed to have studied (and excelled) with this father in the seminary.  These include movements with varying degrees of messianist outlook such as that led by Mahmoud al-Hasani as well as individuals widely considered (or who consider themselves) mujtahids or grand mujtahids such as Kazim Ha’iri and Muhammad al-Ya’qubi.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Qays al-Khaz'ali, Qais Khazali), Ali Khamenei, & Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr“Lion of the League [of the Righteous], Yahya Sarmud Muhammad al-Fayli,” pictured with the late Iraqi mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (top left), Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali/Qais Khazali (bottom right).

Others, such as Qays al-Khaz’ali (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq/League of the Righteous, which is believed to enjoy Iranian state support), have donned the turban (‘amama) in a bid for religious scholarly legitimacy, despite often questionable education credentials.  Though a number of the pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas videos, many which appear to have been made and uploaded by “fans,” include photographs of Muqtada, it is possible that intra-Sadrist (using the term “Sadrist” to refer very broadly to a number of different movements claiming at least part of their legitimacy from the contested legacy of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is considered a martyr at the hands of the Iraqi Ba’th, who assassinated him and two of his sons in February 1999) is also at play in the organizing of volunteers/recruits to fight in Syria.

Qays Khaz'aliQays al-Khaz’ali (seated to the right) in front of a picture of the man whose legacy he claims to be upholding, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Qays al-Khaz'ali (Facebook)“His eminence, the Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the general-secretary of the Islamic Movement of the Righteous [People of Truth].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei, Qays Khazali)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left) pictured with Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top), Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali (far right).  There is also part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Saff (The Ranks): “Help from God and victory is near.”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 2 (Surah al-Kahf)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left and right) pictured with the logo of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which includes a part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Kahf (The Cave), which reads: “Lo, they were young men who believed in their Lord and We [God] increased them in guidance! [We/God guided them].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr Muthanna Ubays Khafif‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq “joyful martyr” (al-shahid al-sa’id) Muthanna ‘Ubays Khafif (right) pictured alongside ‘Ali Khamenei.  Khafif is listed as having “self-sacrificed” (istishhad) in defense of the holy places (al-muqaddasat) on May 15, 2013.


Given my research focus on martyrdom, the study of political Islam, and Shi’ism in the contemporary period, I hope to write more in both the near future on these topics as well as, probably, down the road for my dissertation.


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